The history and meaning behind the many colors of religious life
There is a stereotype, often perpetuated by TV shows and movies, that assumes religious nuns always wear black habits and monks always wear brown robes. Yet, when attending large ecclesial events, like the recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, it is quickly evident that this is not the case.
In fact, the variety of religious congregations can be overwhelming, and it is easy to get confused when trying to decipher which religious order a particular monk or nun is from, and so we offer here a basic — very basic — sort of “field guide” to four of the major religious orders. Most habit-wearing religious communities will fall into one of these categories, or will at least be peripherally connected to one of them. There are many more in existence than these four, but trying to explain the religious garb of the thousands of religious congregations around the world would be nearly impossible.
Established in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Norcia, the Benedictines are typically seen wearing black habits which consist of a tunic, a floor-length scapula and a leather belt (or “girdle”). The black color symbolizes death to the world, penitence and, practically speaking, it was the cheapest fabric available during the sixth century. Monks wear hoods, and nuns wear veils and — as you can see above — it is often in the construction of headwear that religious communities will differentiate themselves from others.
One distinctive element of the Benedictine habit is the absence of an attached rosary. The Benedictines have never featured the beads customary to other religious, mostly because traditional Benedictines do their own farming and construction, and the dangling rosary would be impractical. Fully professed Benedictines will wear a black cowl (or “cuculla”) over their habit for liturgical prayer and important occasions in community. Some examples of Benedictine communities are the Benedictines of Mary and the Benedictine monks at Norcia, the Benedictines of Clear Creek Abbey, the Abbey of St. Walburga, and the Abbey of Regina Laudis.
Famous Benedictine saints include Venerable Bede, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Scholastica, and Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Gertrude the Great. Lay Benedictines include St. Francis of Rome, King Saint Henry II, Servant of God Dorothy Day, and writers Rumer Godden, Flannery O’ Connor, and Walker Percy.
Founded in the 12th century, the Carmelites are a monastic order that traces its roots to a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel outside of Jerusalem. Their habit is brown in color and also features the “scapular;” a long rectangular piece of cloth that hangs in the front and in the back that was given to them from the Blessed Virgin Mary through a vision to St. Simon Stock. Brown is the color of the cross as well as the earth, reminding Carmelites of the cross they must carry and the humility they need to possess.
Besides the dark brown scapular, a Carmelite habit is also identified by a lighter-colored cape (or “cappa”) worn over the top during liturgy. A Carmelite wears a leather belt and typically a large rosary attached to it. Monastic Carmelites wear their profession cross pinned under their scapular. Lili Almog’s coffee-table book Perfect Intimacy features photographs of several Carmelite nuns showing off that usually hidden article.
Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelites follow the example of St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite reformer. There are also apostolic Carmelite communities such as the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Los Angeles and the Carmelite sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus. If you’ve enjoyed Mystic Monk Coffee, it’s thanks to the Carmelite Monks located in Wyoming.
St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, St. Edith Stein and St. John of the Cross are some of the more well-known Carmelite saints. Lay Carmelites include Irish president Éamon de Valera, Ramón Montero Navarro, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
Established in the 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan family is a large one, with numerous religious communities, monastic and apostolic, who claim Francis as their inspiration. The Franciscan habit is typically very simple and has a few common elements. It consists of a tunic (sometimes with a scapular) and can be brown, black, grey, or really any other color, each with their own symbolism depending on the Franciscan branch. St. Francis chose whatever fabric was poorest at the time and the patched-up garment he wore is of many different colors.
Most of the time the Franciscan habit is tied by a rope with three (or four) knots, with the knots symbolizing their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with the fourth referencing an extra “Marian” vow. Often the rope has a large rosary connected to it. Of all the religious habits, the rope is probably the most distinctive element of a Franciscan habit. If you’re seeing a rope, you’re likely seeing a community that has its roots in Franciscan spirituality. Capuchin friars are prominent Franciscans, and both Archbishop Charles Chaput and Cardinal Sean O’Malley are Capuchins. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are a relatively “new” and burgeoning community.
Famous Franciscan saints include St Clare of Assisi, St Bonaventure, St Anthony, St Junipero Serra, and the soon-to-be-beatified Solanus Casey. Mother Angelica of EWTN fame founded her own monastery of Poor Clares (Franciscan nuns). Third Order or Secular Franciscans include Dante Alighieri, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Blessed Frederic Ozanam (founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society), and Louis Pasteur.
Founded by St. Dominic around the same time as the Franciscans, Dominicans are usually the easiest to identify. They wear a white habit with a white scapular with hood (or black veil for the nuns). As with the Benedictines, the Dominican habits are only distinguished between male and female by their hood or veiling. On various occasions they wear a black “cappa” over the top of their habit. The white symbolizes the purity of the life of Christ and black, similar to the Benedictines, points to death to sin, penance and mortification.
They also wear a leather belt which has a large rosary attached to it. There are other religious orders who wear white, but it is the large rosary that help identify a Dominican. That and the books they’re usually carrying. The Dominican order has become highly visible in the last decade thanks to the prominent scholarship at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, and the impressive growth of both the apostolic and contemplative branches of the order. Archbishop Anthony Fisher, of Australia, is a Dominican friar.
Famous Dominicans include St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope St. Pius V, St. Hyacinth, and Bl. Jordan of Saxony. Lay Dominicans include St. Catherine of Siena, St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres, and Bl. PierGiorgio Frassati.